Less than 24 hours after the release of the heart and soul of the Chiefs’ defense, his heir apparent strolled into the Stram Theatre in the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium complex wearing a light blue plaid suit.
To assign the heir that role before he’d even participated in a single offseason workout puts a heavy weight on Tyrann Mathieu’s shoulders. But in using descriptions like leader, catalyst and “ultimate chess piece” to describe Mathieu, members of the Chiefs’ brass know exactly what they’re doing.
They’re entrusting Eric Berry’s role to a younger player: one of the motivator and Swiss-army knife safety.
“We know what we have,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We have a leader and somebody that is not afraid to step up and take on that role. And he is a good football player. And he is a better person than all of that. He is a class act.
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“The things that he will do for the community will be as spectacular as the things he does for our football team.”
The Chiefs entered free agency in need of a dynamic safety to plug a hole in the middle of the field in Steve Spagnuolo’s new 4-3 scheme. And that was before Berry’s release.
In Mathieu, they’re getting that and so much more.
There’s the 89 tackles and two interceptions from a season ago in Houston. The Pro Bowl 2015 season with five interceptions, one touchdown and 89 tackles — 11 of them for a loss.
And there’s what can’t be quantified in a stat line.
“When you have a guy as talented as (Tyrann) ... he can play on the deep end, he can play down low, he can play in the slot, he’s a tremendous blitzer,” general manager Brett Veach said. “He’s just a versatile piece to the puzzle here and these guys are hard to find. Then you factor in the person and the character and what he brings intangibly — that’s exactly why we coveted him and we made a point to make sure he was a Chief this season.”
That character, the intangible quality that pushed Mathieu over the top for the Chiefs, is something that’s had to evolve through the years.
Mathieu was dismissed from LSU for violating the school’s substance-abuse policy in August of his junior season. Later that fall, he was arrested along with three other former players for simple possession of marijuana. A year earlier, he was suspended from the LSU team after he failed a drug test for synthetic marijuana.
Once a first-round talent, Mathieu dropped to the third before Arizona took a chance on him in the 2013 NFL Draft. He’d been out of football for a year and had focused on staying clean, on following all the rules. But somewhere along the way, he lost himself.
It wasn’t until late in his four-year career with Arizona that he finally started to drop his guard — the right way. And once he arrived in Houston, he finally felt comfortable being himself, being the man it took nearly seven years to become.
Now, he enters Kansas City a more complete player and complete man, one who will be the caretaker of the next era of the Chiefs’ defense.
“I’m going to try my best to be the same guy every single day,” he said. “I’m extremely prideful of what I do. I think a lot of guys, they take heed to that. They look up to that. Ultimately, that’s what I try to bring each and every day. Passion, energy, things that I can control. My attitude.”
After finishing nearly dead last in a bevy of defensive categories, the Chiefs are going all in on a rebuild by releasing mainstays like Berry and Justin Houston and trading Dee Ford. In filling those holes, the’ve shown a commitment to bringing in younger players with the signings of Mathieu, linebacker Damien Wilson and defensive end Alex Okafor.
Fellow safety Daniel Sorensen, 29, is the Chiefs’ oldest player on the defensive side of the ball. Mathieu is taking over a malleable group. The Chiefs are looking to him to dictate the identity and culture of the future with his work ethic and his attitude.
“It’ll start fresh,” Reid said. “One thing we mentioned to (Mathieu) was that this is the beginning. He’s coming in fresh with the rest of the guys, and they’re going to build this thing together along with the coaching staff. Normally if you have good players and good coaches, normally you have success. We feel like we’re right there and heading in that direction.”
Thursday afternoon, Mathieu was confident and self-assured sitting between Reid and Veach, wholly and completely himself after a winding journey.
Berry endeared himself to the Chiefs and the Kansas City community by living through his adversity publicly. By tearing his ACL and coming back. By battling cancer and coming back. By being an inspiration to his teammates even when he wasn’t on the field.
Mathieu arrives in Kansas City with his adversity in the past, but he’s using lessons he’s learned to bring the same energy that made Berry such a beloved figure in KC.
“Everybody knows my story,” Mathieu said. “I don’t try to run from it. I just try to share as much experience as I can with people so that they can avoid decisions I made or similar situations. I’m always going to be that guy, be the team person. No matter what.”
Their stories aren’t the same, but the similarities between Berry and Mathieu aren’t lost on the newest Chief.
They’re both SEC products, coached by John Chavis. Mathieu’s first number at LSU was No. 14, chosen for Berry’s number at Tennessee. And, Mathieu said, they’re both committed to doing things the right way.
“It would’ve been an honor to play with him,” Mathieu said. “But I’ll try to do it the right way — the way he would’ve wanted it done.”